June 29, 2017
The weather has been windy and cold for days, with rain passing by in sheets, and occasional sun. Today the sky over Wensleydale is graded from white to grey to slate, blackening the low hills. Trees are in full leaf but branches are scattered on the roads after last night’s wind.
We are driving from Askrigg up and over the open moor towards Muker. There’s a small grouse running on the road, and a heavy-fleeced swaledale scratching itself on a marker post. Down in the valley, sheep have been gathered in for shearing.
The road is narrow. A single winding track following the beck as it snakes down the hill. We are coming down into Muker now and the light is soft over the rich green of walled-in fields. Barns nestle into the folds in the land and the scene is so serene we have to stop and pause to take it in. A young lapwing wobbles past us, its downy white chest feathers fluffed out like a bib. Its mother flies up from the grass and calls to divert our attention – then there are two adults circling the air. I can hear a curlew’s song rising above the sound of the water that’s gushing, brown, in the beck that cuts beneath the road. The houses and farms are brown too – a landscape of blended elemental colours, as if all its parts rise from the rain-fed earth. The sheep around us are marked with a red smit mark, and free of their fleeces. At our feet, there are orchids in their scores.
We trace the road through Muker and Thwaite, drive through Keld and go past Tan Hill Inn, which is quiet, a complete contrast to the day of the show. We’re on our way to Arkengarthdale to meet Paul Harker. A flash of white by the roadside makes us stop – a short-eared owl, wings outstretched, is hovering above the heather. It is so close we can see the individual feathers in its tail and wings, sandy-yellow mixed with white and the browns of the moor.
In its lower reaches, Arkengarthdale is greener and more treed than the high moorland. The fields are dotted with sheep – some already sheared, but many not – and cattle. We talk to Paul in his kitchen and then take a stroll outside. His farm includes 130 acres of inside land, and he has grazing rights on Arkengarthdale Common. He talks about his Swaledale sheep and Shorthorn cattle, and how, over the last forty years, his methods have adapted to the markets and environmental stewardship schemes.
As swallows and martins swoop above our heads, we talk about the birds we have seen on the way over and Paul tells us he has seen a lot of redshanks this year, and a recent survey revealed his farmland is particularly rich in terms of bird numbers and diversity.
Beside one of his barns, there is an undulating field. Its mass of grass and flowers is weighted with rain from this morning. It’s one of several meadows on the farm, which also has ancient woodlands, which he is working to restore, and areas of new trees that are thriving – all part of a balancing act where livestock and land are both well cared for.
When we leave the farm we notice a rabbit and a young curlew wandering among the grass beside the farm track, both utterly relaxed. The curlew pulls a worm out of the earth then tackles the challenge of swallowing – it’s still learning. Oyster catchers on the wall send high calls into the air, and the sun is coming out. As is so often the case in the Dales, the coming and going of clouds results in a fabulous light show and the valley seems resplendent.
Our interview with Paul Harker will be shared in audio and written form on the website soon.